Richard of York gave battle…

Rainbow over Arisaig

This summer has been a season of rainbows after torrential downpours… we photographed some really stunning ones in March, on our way across the Sound of Mull.

Looking through these photos set me thinking about the mnemonic that everyone learns in childhood to remember the colours of the rainbow:  ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ (i.e. red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).

So who was Richard of York, and why did he give battle in vain?

Richard of York, depicted in a window in St. Laurence’s Church, Ludlow; photo via Wikimedia Commons

A great-grandson of Edward III, Richard Plantagenet or Richard of York (1411 – 1460) was one of the wealthiest noblemen of his time;   and, with his lineage, he was a potent threat to the throne of England.  His father had been executed for his part in a plot against the Lancastrian king Henry V;  although his father’s lands were then forfeited to the crown, Richard inherited vast estates from his uncle, who had died at Agincourt.

Early in his career, Richard was sent to France to strengthen territories that had been won by Henry V, and later, as the Earl of Ulster, he travelled to Ireland with an army of about 600 men.  These appointments could have been a strategy on the king’s part to remove him from the temptation of plotting against the throne.

Having made several attempts at insurgence, and creating a lot of bad feeling between himself and Henry VI, Richard’s first opportunity came in 1453, when the king apparently suffered some kind of serious mental breakdown.  Despite the ongoing feud between the powerful Percy and Neville families, each of whom wanted a slice of power, Richard managed to seize the position of Protector of the Realm and Chief Councillor.

Inevitably, the feuding led to conflict.  At the Battle of St Albans, Henry VI faced Richard of York and the Nevilles, with whom Richard was now allied.  The rebels were better equipped, and the result was that Henry was held prisoner by Richard, first in Hertford and then in London.  Although Henry had recovered his reason, it was his wife, Margaret of Anjou, who had the courage to oppose Richard’s ambitions.

The balance of power shifted back and forth, but Richard knew when to make a tactical retreat.   Watching from a safe distance in Ireland, he chose his moment to return.  In 1460 he marched on London, displaying the banner of the Coat of Arms of England, and when he arrived he put forward a formal claim to the crown by hereditary right.  Under the Act of Accord, Henry was forced to disinherit his son, and acknowledge Richard as his heir.

Meanwhile Lancastrian forces were massing in the north, bitterly opposed to Richard’s campaign of glory.  Queen Margaret and her son had fled to Wales, to join Lancastrian supporters there, and Richard despatched his elder son Edward to contain them;   then, with his second son, Edmund, by his side, he marched northwards to face the king’s supporters.

A fatal mistake…

Arriving at Sandal Castle near Wakefield, Richard was surprised by the number of Lancastrian troops that had gathered there.   On 30th December 1460, he chose not to wait any longer for the reinforcements he had requested from his elder son, and rode out from the castle at the head of his army.

Experts differ as to the reasoning behind Richard’s action.   Some believe that he was fooled by the enemy’s display of false colours;  others speculate that the agreed date of the battle was 6th January, and one side or the other may have engaged in fighting too soon;   and there is another theory that the Lancastrians concealed half their army in the woods, and took advantage of Richard while he was on a foraging expedition.

Either way, Richard and his forces were attacked on all sides and their escape route cut off;  Richard was killed, and his son, Edmund, was also killed while trying to escape over Wakefield Bridge.  A contemporary report states that there were close to 2,500 Yorkist casualties, but only 200 Lancastrians:  a triumph for Henry’s supporters.

In keeping with the less-than-subtle traditions of the time, Richard’s severed head was displayed on Micklegate Bar, a fortified entrance into York, wearing a paper crown.  His son and allies were dealt the same fate.

‘Dickie’s Meadow’

I find it interesting to read that the local term ‘Dickie’s Meadow’ probably refers to the site where the Battle of Wakefield took place – and it has survived into the 21st century.  Even today, the Yorkshire expression “You’ll end up in Dickie’s Meadow” is a warning of the consequence of foolish action.

Although Richard of York gave battle in vain, he was the father of two future kings of England:  Edward IV and Richard III.  

Rainbow over the Sound of Mull

‘The Legendary Ten Seconds’

Loyaulte final FRONT COVER smallMusic for Ricardians, written and played by Ricardians:  Inspired by the life and times of the Duke of York and King Richard III, The Legendary Ten Seconds is an English folk rock group whose music is helping to raise money for the scoliosis charity SAUK.  You can find out more and listen to their music at www.thelegendary10seconds.co.uk

Comments

  1. Many thanks for this i can use this brief but informable history for my sims game

  2. Helen I. Lenti says:

    I still don’t understand how the saying , “Richard of York gave battle in vane” came to be the slogan to symbolize remembering the colors of the rainbow. How did these particular words come to associate with Richard of York’s battle? Just wondering. Good historical information though. Thanks. H.Lenti

    • I don’t know how the saying came to be connected with the rainbow! Maybe there was a rainbow immediately after the battle! Glad you found it useful and thanks for your comment.

  3. Christopher Knowles says:

    Great article. I presume that it became connected with the rainbow simply because the facts coincided with the colours. He gave battle and died in vain because he rushed out to engage the Lancastrian forces and did not survive the resulting battle. If he stayed secure in his fortified position English history may have been very different. Here is a pic of the battlefield complete with part of a rainbow with the city of Wakefield in the background. http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7366/10697438046_37392fc74f_k.jpg

  4. Christopher Knowles says:

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